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Culture and Degeneration in American Literature from Twain to Fitzgerald

ENGL 283.601
instructor(s):
TR 5-6:15

From the dark satirical vision of Mark Twain's later writings, to the atmosphere of loss and empty materialism in The Great Gatsby, the period of American literary history from the 1880s to the first decades of the twentieth century features a number of writers whose most significant work focuses on cultural, psychological, racial, moral, and sexual degeneration. Culminating in the devastation of the First World War, this period of profound social transformation ushered in many of the factors that contributed to the literary preoccupation with various forms of degeneration. These included threats to racial purity posed by European immigration; a growing interest in anthropology, evolution, and primitivism; and important developments in abnormal psychology and sociology. In addition to Twain and Fitzgerald, we will read novels, stories, and some poetry by Dreiser, Norris, Crane, Wharton, London, Eliot, Pound, Gilman, Chesnutt and Wister among others. These readings will be supplemented by the work of William James, Freud, Nietzsche, Ellis, and Max Nordau's influential book, Degeneration (1892). We will briefly consider the ethnological exhibits of the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago, screen Erich Von Stroheim's film, Greed (based on the novel McTeague, and look at the urban documentary photography of Jacob A. Riis. This is a seminar, rather than a survey course. We will therefore emphasize depth and discussion of selected works.